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Monday 11 November 2013

Billy Morris – A Journey to Varennes


Last year, coincidentally the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice, I wrote in the Sunday Independent Life magazine the story of my uncle, Billy Morris, a young man from Kilkenny, who, like many other young Irish men of his generation had felt honour bound to go off to war and, also like many other young men of his generation, never came home.


The year before I had been given a cache of letters by my cousin, belonging to his late mother, which had lain in a trunk in an attic for 90 years. What emerged from this treasure of letters was a detailed correspondence between my aunt, May Rose Morris, and her elder brother Billy, from the time he had enlisted in 1916, through his military training in England, his journey around the North of France leading to the front lines at the Somme and, finally, his last tragic black bordered letter of farewell to his mother written just before he was killed in 1917 aged 24.


Billy was my father’s eldest brother, the golden boy, educated at Clongowes Wood College, charming, talented and musical, and a keen steeplechaser and rider to hounds with the Kilkenny Hunt. My grandfather had owned the Lacken Mills on the River Nore and lived in Hartlands on the Dublin Road, subsequently known as Lacken House, a Nursing Home, and more recently a Guest House. My father, Anselm Morris, had not married until he was almost 50 which accounts for the timeline of Billy being my Uncle rather than a Granduncle. My father had always told me that Billy had been killed in the First World War but he had no idea where he was buried. When the letters came to light and with the aid of the internet I was able to discover that he was buried in a British Military Cemetary at Varennes, near Albert, north of Amiens in the Somme area of Picardie.


In the aftermath of the article, a number of people got in touch with me who had also lost family members in the Great War. These included the family of Tommy Duggan from Kilkenny, another Clongowes boy and law student, who had come home having lost an eye and yet heroically returned to the front and was later killed and is buried at Grandcourt. I was also contacted by the Archivist of Clongowes Wood College who told me that Uncle Billy’s name was on a Memorial Plaque at the College to those lost in the Great War. They sent a picture of him captaining a Rugby Team and most interestingly a copy letter from his “inseparable pal” Michael Morrow Jackson to my grandparents describing in detail how he had died. This was all new information I did not have at the time of writing the original article.


The correspondence between Billy and May Rose gave an extraordinary insight not only into the day to day living of a soldier at the front but into the life and times and the prominent families of that era in Kilkenny. It seemed another world of hunting, shooting, and fishing, and parties. It was a Bertie Woosterish in tone as he addressed May Rose all the time as “My dearest Miggles” and enquired from the trenches as to what were her prospects for the “social season”.


Billy Morris had been 23, honing his financial skills working in the City of London, when he enlisted with his friend Michael Morrow Jackson into the Honorable Artillary Company, an elite regiment of young men from the City of London. The HAC is the oldest regiment in the British Army, incorporated in 1537, and has the Queen as its Captain General. The Regiment undertakes ceremonial duties for the Royal Family and at the Tower of London. Much to his father’s annoyance he, and Michael, had enlisted as ordinary soldiers declining offers of a Commission. Billy said they enjoyed the life “of an ordinary Tommy” – apart from the fact that they were paid so little. He had started training in May 1916 in Richmond Park Camp in Surrey and one of the things that initially leapt out at me from the letters was where he had written home to Miggles saying “send my rugger boots and jersey…and my tennis shoes….” It was as if they were all off on one great adventure …… Many of the letters were faded and it took me almost a year to read through and decipher them sometimes using a torch. I had one minor advantage in that his handwriting was similar to my father’s. I found myself getting more and more absorbed by the mind of a young man I had never met or really known more than a few details of. It was the simple things that were so compelling, human and touching; of wanting his socks darned, his love of bullseye sweets, the 7d novels he was reading for distraction, and always looking for chocolate ……..I suppose for energy and to keep them going. He talked of running into a girl from Kilkenny after mass at Forest Gate; invitations to the Theatre and a trip through Soho and the Italian Quarter which was “very interesting”. He said that everyone assumed that as they were in the HAC that they were millionaires whereas in fact he was very often broke! He talked amusingly of the King Edward Horse Regiment who “were all jolly fine chaps but rotten soldiers. They lounge around most awfully and are absolutely without discipline but of course they were ‘it’ with the girls.”


After training, his Regiment moved from Richmond to the Tower of London and onwards to France. Poignantly, on departure, he sent a card saying “he was in ripping form and would be delighted to be able to say he had been to France”. Little did he suspect he would never leave La Belle France!


He was extraordinarily articulate, with a wry amusing take on village life in France, yet expressing at times loneliness and his frustration at his comrades believing he never stopped laughing even when he was miserable. He recounted of how they were having a “tres bien” time in a village in France where the locals never had any change and always charged 100% too much! He talked of cooking scrambled egg and porridge on a primus stove and of how he loved Golden Syrup in his porridge. There was deep snow and he talked of how they hated putting smelly whale oil on their feet. However he declared he was still “happier in his rotten old barn than any king that ever reigned.” Meanwhile, from Kilkenny, reports were coming of his younger brothers tobogganing, and Miggles was busy sending socks, chocolate and more 7d books. The boys told him “the man with the gold uniform and mace had died”. He asked whether it was “the Theatre man or the Mayor!”


Whilst he couldn’t say exactly where they were it was clear their missions were very serious and he did send a postcard of Albert commenting that you wouldn’t believe what desctruction there was now. Albert was the main town behind the lines for the Allies nearest to the Somme battlefields. In the centre of Albert is one of the most famous icons of the Great War – the Golden Virgin on top of the Basilica – a statue of the Madonna holding aloft her child which could be seen from quite a distance. The statue was shot out of position early on by the Germans and balanced precariously throughout the war. The superstition was that the war would only end when the statue finally fell. When the Germans advanced into Albert in 1918, the British, aware that the tower could be used as a lookout, deliberately targeted it and the statue finally fell. Albert was re-taken by the British and the Armistice was seven months later. Following the war, the Basilica was rebuilt and the golden statue replaced. It dominates the town and is an amazing sight as you approach from any angle. <ep>


As they got to the front lines Billy wrote then describing how Michael and some of them were playing Auction Bridge with a candle in a bottle and asking for details of a dance in Kilkenny. “I am by far the dirtiest of the lot. I have not washed for, well I really shouldn’t tell you, as you mightn’t let me in when I get home. This may be any day now according to all the prophets. Personally I am quite confident that poor old Fritz is done. Nobody feels a bit ferocious, or wants to be the least bit rude to one another”. He referred to being in one of “Fritz’s marvellous underground dug outs.”

There was a PS saying they were suddenly being moved.


Despite Billy’s optimism, that he might shortly be home, he was killed on their next mission. What I didn’t know when I wrote the article last year was that his friend Michael had written a letter detailing how they had been ordered to take a road that was important to the Germans, how they had both crossed it safely, but on being ordered to throw a bomb into a dugout, Billy stood up and was shot. Billy said he thought he was “badly hit” and Michael did what he could for him, getting him onto a stretcher and off to a field hospital still “cheery” where he died four days later.


His last black bordered letter arrived to his mother along with letters from those who had buried him. I still cry every time I read the letter to my Grandmother:


My dearest, every dearest Mum,

If this ever reaches you, I shall have made the great sacrifice just like many another mother’s son. I shall have made it cheerfully and thank God bravely like a good soldier. But I shall not have made it unthinkingly.

I shall have remembered you all while memory is possible with me and I shall have died with Mum on my lips. The Blessed Virgin has watched over me out here. She has been with me night and day thro’ all the hardships, all the horrors, all the long ghastly struggles against the seeming impossible physical and mental tasks.

How foolish we are to think too much of this old world! When I wrote this I was young and rosy cheeked and strong. Laughing, joking and singing, in spite of all. But we all know that tomorrow we might face our God. We shall all meet and be happier than we ever dreamt of where trenches and shells are not.

This is the bravest thing I have done, darling, to say goodbye to you beforehand. But it is worth it to know you will be cheered and inspired.

“Little One and her soldier boy. God Bless them. Dear brave Miggles. She has done her part in the war. Harder than many a soldier’s and I can’t tell her how I admire her and love her.

Lawdie Ancy – a fine chap he’ll be.

A Dieu. We shall meet again.

So now cheery oh! Once again my sweetheart Mum – my only sweetheart be happy.

I died smiling – as I lived.




What I also found so heartbreaking was that nobody from the family in just over ninety years had ever stood at his grave to comfort him and tell him we cared.

It became like an obsession with me as if he was calling me until at the end of August we finally got there.


Over the years I had visited many of the World War 11 cemeteries and beaches in the North of France which are absolutely riveting. But even as we drove from Cherbourg across through Normandy and into Picardie you can almost feel the atmosphere become more sombre. We made straight for the little town of Albert, which Billy had described, and which was only 11 km from where he is buried at Varennes. Everything in the area is redbrick and the atmosphere is quiet. Accommodation we found to be limited and pretty well catering purely for those on a mission rather than holiday – so not great. We had driven 250 miles on the day of our arrival, and he had ‘waited’ 92 years, however, I just could not sleep that night without visiting the grave.


Varennes is a tiny redbrick hamlet with a church at a crossroads. It was a Sunday evening and the evening was warm when we arrived. It’s an extraordinary place, raised high off the road, with an imposing entrance, and shaded by some big old chestnut trees that are older than time. The sun was going down and the air was still. We found our Billy amidst the rows of young men, no more than boys, most of them. The cemetery is magnificently maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with a visitor’s set book neatly in a cubbyhole at the entrance recording visits from grandnieces and nephews in recent times. It seems it is a war that will never be forgotten in families. The shining rows of headstones are a backdrop to rows of roses bringing to mind the Pete Seeger Song “Where have all the flowers gone?”


I talked to Billy and told him how we cared and suddenly thought of a picture I have of him on his horse “Baronessa” at Gowran Races and said “if you know we are here send me a sign – let me see a horse”. My better half Brendan, and son Aidan, scoffed at the idea as we went back to the Hotel for the night, but I texted my friend who asked “did you see a horse?” “No, I replied, but I will in the morning.” Next morning we set off back to the graveyard. We arrived at Varennes crossroads, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I swung right at the crossroads onto the road to the cemetary and, almost unbelievably, was confronted immediately by a young woman walking two magnificent riderless horses down the middle of the road as if at a military funeral. She must have wondered at this crazy woman jumping out of an Irish car to take pictures but I didn’t care I got back into the car burst into tears for I knew without doubt that the long journey had all been worthwhile our ‘Soldier Boy’ knew we were there. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I picked two yellow roses from his grave and brought them home to put with his letters.


Having made my farewells with Billy, for I know I will never get there again, we drove around the Somme area and to Grandcourt where he had been killed, and where Tommy Duggan is buried. You really could be back a century ago it is so olde worlde. More people were killed at the Somme than in the whole of World War 11 and you will see from the map that every blue dot stands for a memorial or cemetary. We visited the memorial at Beaumont Hamel for the Newfoundland Regiment, which was part of the 88th Infantry Brigade, who suffered appalling losses – 90% were casualties within half an hour of attack! Here we were shown around by Canadian students acting as guides for the summer. It is incredible to see the grassed over trenches with, just a few hundred yards away on the other side of a field, the German trenches. In the middle was a spinney known as the Danger Tree where many of the casualties took place. To the right was the inevitable cemetary where the last words of a young soldier Private Charles Taylor, on leaving home, are inscribed on his headstone “I have only once to die.” A couple of miles away we came on the Ulster Tower at Schwaben Redoubt near Thiepval Wood. It is a memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and is a copy of Helen’s Tower in County Down where the men trained. It also has a little café but unfortunately it was closed on a Monday, the day we visited. Very close by we came on the Connaught Cemetary with it’s Cross of Sacrifice. 1200 young men rest here, over half of whom are unidentified.


We were the lucky ones to have found Billy Morris and to finally have put him to rest.



“Where have all the flowers gone,

Long time passing……

Where have all the soldiers gone,

Gone to graveyards every one

When will they ever learn,

When will they ever learn.”


copyright Lucinda O'Sullivan